The latest intelligence update published by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) claimed that Russian forces are assembling an elite aviation unit tasked with bombing operations in Ukraine.
Ironically, the update coincides with speculative reports of a Russian Su-35 being downed by Ukrainian air defense over the Black Sea, doing rounds on the internet. Although the Ukrainian Air Force has yet to verify the news at the time of writing this report, social media had been abuzz with videos allegedly showing the aircraft going down.
The British intelligence assessment, published on May 22, said that the elite aviation attack unit would likely be named ‘Shtorm’ and composed of the Soviet-era Su-24 Fencer aircraft and the Russian Su-34 Fullback fighter bomber. Russia has extensively deployed both aircraft in the ongoing conflict.
“Russia is highly likely creating a new ‘elite’ attack aviation group code-named ‘Shtorm’ to operate over Ukraine. The unit is likely to consist of at least one squadron of Su-24 Fencer and Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers and a squadron of attack helicopters,” read the assessment posted by the official account of the UK MoD on Twitter.
Although the intelligence update did not specify which attack helicopters would be included in the ‘Shtorm’ unit, Russia mostly dispatches its Ka-52, Mi-24, and Mi-28 military choppers to attack Ukrainian positions. The Ka-52 is the most advanced attack helicopter in the Russian arsenal and can conduct anti-tank operations.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 22 May 2023.
Find out more about Defence Intelligence's use of language: https://t.co/f4SN7EUioz
— Ministry of Defence ?? (@DefenceHQ) May 22, 2023
The British intelligence update further assessed that the choice of fighter jets for the elite aviation unit signals that the unit will be predominantly responsible for ground strike missions.
The British intelligence update concludes that this unit’s creation indicates an underwhelming performance of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) in the ongoing battle. “The Russian MoD hopes to hire highly qualified and motivated pilots by offering generous pay incentives and opening recruitment to former pilots.”
?On the night of May 22, ??air defense forces shot down 20 Iranian-made Shahed-136/131 drones and 4 cruise missiles Kh-101/Kh-555.
In particular, #Russian forces targeted the Dnipropetrovsk region. In the Dniprovskyi district, a 27yo man was injured due to a missile strike pic.twitter.com/E7QtAJR3yk
— MFA of Ukraine ?? (@MFA_Ukraine) May 22, 2023
The Russian MoD has yet to acknowledge or respond to the UK Defense Ministry’s intelligence update, which the Russians usually dismiss and ridicule. However, the timing of the update published by the UK MoD is significant as it comes at a time when Russian fighters and bombers continue to rain down missiles on Ukrainian cities.
The development also comes amid positive signaling from the United States on a subsequent decision to send much-sought-after F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. The Ukrainian pilots have already begun training on the F-16s, according to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
After the US announced that it would not stand in the way of its Western allies sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov warned that transferring them to Kyiv would be considered a NATO involvement in the conflict.
The Curious Case Of Russian Air Performance In Ukraine
According to military experts, the less-than-satisfactory performance of the VKS has been one of the biggest mysteries of the Ukraine war. Russian pilots have been remarkably reluctant to launch their attacks despite having greater numbers and technology.
That is partly because Ukrainian ground-based air defenses are effective and partly due to the vulnerabilities in Russia’s air fleet, including its AWACS aircraft. Moreover, the constant flow of intelligence from NATO aircraft to the Ukrainian military has been choking Russian air operations against Ukraine, as recently reported by EurAsian Times.
However, despite all its shortcomings, the VKS remains a force to reckon with, according to some experts and military watchers who have been keenly following the air war over Ukraine.
For instance, Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corporation think tank said on the Geopolitics Decanted podcast last month, “As a force, the VKS is still intact. Yes, they’ve lost squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, but that’s a single-digit percentage of the total force. It’s still a force in being.”
Due to deeply saturated airspace over Ukraine, the Russian Air Force launched missiles on Ukrainian targets from behind the frontlines. Russian fighter jets like the Su-34 and the Su-35 are predominantly used to launch long-range missiles and aerial bombs on Kyiv.
“The enemy deploys 10–15, and up to 20, such bombs each day along the entire line of contact dropped from Su-35 and Su-34 jets outside the range of our air defense systems. This is a threat to us, and we have to respond to it urgently,” Yury Ihnat, spokesman for the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said last month.
Russia has also lately upped the use of Kh-101, Kh-555, and even the destructive Kh-22 fired from its bombers. This month also saw an increased firing of Kinzhal hypersonic missiles against Kyiv.
On the same podcast, Justin Bronk, an airpower expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said that even though the Russian fighter fleet is primarily unscathed, “the attrition rates on their ground-attack fleets are quite significant.” He asserted that Russia has more ground-attack aircraft in storage and that fleet is “still a significant threat in being.”